BIG STORY: Innovation Village Moves to Unlock Opportunities for Startups, Entrepreneurs

The Innovation Village, an innovation hub that works with entrepreneurs to use technology to solve challenges faced in various areas such businesses, government among others, is working around the clock to unlock opportunities for entrepreneurs and startups which in most cases do not live to see their first birthday.

Speaking at the inaugural Corporate Innovation Summit held in Kampala on Thursday to look for ways to support entrepreneurs and startups, CK Japheth, the Team Leader at the Innovation Village said the institution together with its partners have gone ahead to address the challenge of inadequate funding for startups, given that Uganda takes slim portion of innovation funding that comes to Africa.

“The Innovation Village’s core mandate is to enable and unlock potential among start-ups and entrepreneurs,” said Japheth.

“All our initiatives at The Village such as the Corporate Innovation Summit are tailored to meet this purpose with the aim to create an entire ecosystem for entrepreneurs and innovators to provide solutions for our biggest challenges,” he added.

Organisations have had to adapt and explore New Ways of Working (NWoW) due to changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic with a number of companies either pivoting their business models or collaborating with incumbents to meet the needs of the market.

“As a country, Uganda is not tapping into its most prized asset as one of the most entrepreneurial countries in the world. The Innovation industry in Africa currently attracts about $2.02 billion every year. Of this, 37% of that funding goes to Nigeria, 35% to Kenya, 30% to Cape Town and less than 1% to Uganda. The journey to support our youth initiatives and turn them into tangible businesses begins now,” added Japheth.

The Innovation Village through its FutureLab sought to kickstart open discussions on how best the corporate industry can incorporate an innovation culture with pathways of implementation, integration of latest technologies and the use of disruptive business models in discovering the untapped business opportunities.

Working with its partners, the MasterCard Foundation, Japheth said they have built an innovation fund dubbed the “97 Fund” and made their very first investments this year.

Guests called for more collaboration between the start-ups and private sector

“There is no fund that has invested in early stage entrepreneurs. We made our very first investment into 10 entrepreneur startups to help them move to the next stage. I am very happy we have partnered with the MasterCard Foundation and have already seeded the 97 Fund with a million dollars,” he said.

“We have been able to scale our work. We have built innovation hubs in Gulu, Jinja, Mbarara, Bugolobi and leveraging these platforms, we are now able to offer that entire ecosystem what an entrepreneur needs which is access to capital. We are able to invest in entrepreneurs, we are able to offer access to partnerships, access to market opportunities but also the business development they require to build their organizations.”

Slow progress 

Samantha Niyonsaba, the FutureLab Lead at The Innovation Village noted that the adoption of innovation within organizations is taking shape but at a slow rate.

She said less than 10% of organisations in Uganda have embraced innovation and even those that have are still at the experimentation stage.

“Top management has a role to play in adjusting this narrative by adopting and embedding an innovation culture with in their operations. Business leaders need to demonstrate that innovation skillset is essential for professional development and they have to show creativity and ability to guide teams and businesses by accelerating change,” said Niyonsaba.

Joanita Menya Mukasa, the Managing Director Unilever Uganda and guest speaker at the event, emphasized that tailoring innovation in an organization should start and stop with the consumer.

“Organization leaders have a role to play in fostering an innovation culture within their organisations. Leaders must therefore take it upon themselves to commit before their teams to encourage the ability to innovate but also create an environment that supports the same. For the culture to grow however, leaders must recognize that staff within the organization will make mistakes along the way which is part of the learning process,” said Mukasa.


Japheth also explained that they do venture building “where we ensure that when an entrepreneur comes, we are able to give you market access, we are able to give you the capital, we are able to you access to our partner, we are able to give you access to business development such that you can build a successful startup that can grow, expand and succeed.”

He expressed concern that although they have opened up innovation hubs in various parts of the country such as Gulu, Jinja, Mbarara and the recent one in Bugolobi for young people in the creative space, there is still a challenge that many innovative and enterprising young people build businesses and startups but most of the innovations die in their first year of operation.

This, he said, is very unfortunate for a country like Uganda which is so young and creative.

“How can Facebook come to Uganda, how can WhatsApp come to Uganda if we are so creative and entrepreneurial. The Corporate Innovation Summit, the first of its kind in Uganda is our way of bringing corporates, startups and creating opportunities for the two to innovate together such that we can begin to build companies that grow to solve our problems using technology,” he wondered.

Japheth also expressed concern that many Ugandans have developed ideas such as building robots but that their ideas do not advance, adding that a good idea does not necessarily create a good business.

To address the challenge, Japheth said they help entrepreneurs distinguish between a good idea and a good business.

“Coming up with an idea is just 5% of what it takes to innovate. A good idea doesn’t necessarily create a good business. A lot of the work we are doing is helping an entrepreneur distinguish between a good idea and a good business,” he said.

He added that there are various factors such as access to capital, partners to work with, good policy environment among others that can enable a good idea create business.

“Because all those things are not in place, it becomes hard for these people (entrepreneurs) to do anything. The work that needs to be done is to make sure this environment is growing such that when a good guy has an idea, this guy can be supported to be able to grow.”

On the policy level, Japheth said that although Government through the Ministry of ICT has done significant initiatives, there is no policy that can enable innovators build promising startups.

“We have countries that have a startup Act. How do you put up regulations in Parliament to protect growing startups? Yes, a lot of work has been done but there is much more we can do as far as policy to support innovation is concerned,” he observed.

The meeting which brought together global innovation experts, top executives across the country’s most successful corporations and fast growing startups will be held annually to inform and rally the corporate sector in collaborating with innovators and start-ups.

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